The How and Why of Messy Play

What is Messy Play?

“Messy Play” are activities that stimulate one or more of a child’s senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. Children naturally use their senses to explore their environment and being able to use more than one in play is not only more fun but it intensifies the play experience.

Children squish, squelch, spin, splash, squeeze, bang, run, scoop, shake, drop, smear, toss, and spray.

Through this exploration, children learn how objects look, feel, taste, smell and how they can be manipulated and used. This type of play nurtures a child’s understanding of the world that surrounds them.

While there are five senses – taste, smell, sight, sound and touch – there are also internal senses such as balance, position and movement. When we engage in messy play activities the emphasis on these senses is amplified. Messy play supports thinking, feeling, enquiring, experimentation, researching and investigating.

Messy play fosters Curiosity, Imagination and Exploration

Let's get Messy. How and why to engage in messy play

Why is messy play important?

Fine and gross motor skills

Messy play helps children to pick up and manipulate objects. It allows for different sized objects to be molded and textures to flow through their hands and fingers. This type of play helps to develop fine motor skills. Squeezing, scooping and pouring materials all engage the muscles in their fingers, wrists, arm and shoulder. Fine motor skills are used daily by children to hold a pencil, use their cutlery or to tie their shoelaces.

Introducing children to a variety of messy play activities also aids to develop strength in different muscle groups. Messy play helps to develop gross motor skills as even something as simple as jumping or stomping in puddles will help to strengthen and develop leg muscles.

Hand Eye Coordination

Hand-eye coordination is when your child tracks the movements of their hands with their eyes, which is essential for reading and decoding. Things like cutting shapes out of playdough, pouring rice from one container to the other or using a tweezers to pick objects out of sand, are all great for developing this.

Language development

Messy play can lead to amazing discussions with your child. Is it squishy? Smooth? Soft? Rough? Hot or Cold? Messy play gives children the chance to practice their vocabulary and use more complex sentences.

Vocabulary Expansion: We can use our own words to describe what they’re playing for vocabulary learning. “Squishy, sweet, soft, shiny, scratchy”

Sentence Expansion: Messy play encourages a child to communicate with you about what they are doing – or want to do. If you ask what they are playing with and they say, “play dough,” you can respond with, “You are playing with the red play dough.” “What are you doing with the dough?”

Question Comprehension: A mix of open-ended and yes/no questions can be asked. “How does it feel?” or “Do you want to shake or tip the bottle?”

Following Directions: can be developed by asking the child to follow simple or multi-step instructions. “Pick up the play dough and stretch it.” or “Pour the water into the sand.”

Inferencing: Messy play encourages children to make observations and draw conclusions based on what they see. We can ask questions like “Which of these tools should you use to stir?” or “What happens when we mix the red and white paint?”

Messy play is also a great way for children to use symbolic language and engage in pretend play – shaving cream can become an ocean when you add blue food colour!

Social and emotional development

Creating an environment for children where there is no right or wrong, builds self-esteem and encourages positive experiences. Because there’s no right or wrong way to engage in sensory-rich messy play, messy play fosters inclusion. Everyone can take part!

Messy play gives children the opportunity to share their feelings and thoughts as they explore messy materials. It provides an opportunity to play alongside or together and to learn how to share their workspace and equipment which is developing valuable social skills. 

Cognitive development

Using hands-on self-directed play, children get a feel for experimentation by figuring out how things work. Children learn valuable skills like cause and effect and problem-solving. They can also learn basic math skills like sorting and matching and exploring differences and similarities.

Sensory exposure builds connections in the brain’s neural pathways, which leads to improving your child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks. 

Where and how can you do it? 

Let your imagination go wild!

Messy play experiences like water play, mud play, jelly, slime, goo, foam, and scented or edible playdough can stimulate your child’s senses.

  • Bath time while playing with water, using plastic cups or washed-up yoghurt pots to pour, splash and empty water. Add in some sponges and different toys to compare shapes and how they feel.

  • Meal-times are a great opportunity to experience eating in its entirety, especially with younger children. Allow your child to feel, smell and taste their food. This works well with pasta, cereals, jelly, mashed potato – the options are endless.

  • Get outside in the natural world is a playground of textures, smells and sensations. Find some sand to root in, puddles to jump in, leaves to gather and throw, or mud to play in.

  • A sandpit/the beach is a great area for messy play. Sand triggers many sensations so let your child dig, pour, tip, bury and pluck object outs.

  • Create a sensory box: think cotton wool, bubble wrap, tinfoil, tinsel, toilet roll, etc. Ask your child to close their eyes and pick out something from the box. Ask them to describe it – What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like. Ask them to open their eyes and ask them what it looks like. Then take your turn!

  • Explore your food cupboards: food provides a great source of exploration and sensory stimulation so hunt for anything you can crunch, snap, mash or manipulate. Dry foods such as cereal, oats, pasta and rice or foods such as mashed potato or jelly are perfect!
    • Rice Play – different lunch boxes with food colouring added to rice.
      Add in some spoons, forks pots, pans, colanders – great for scooping and pouring and measuring.
    • Gloop! – Is it a solid, is it a liquid? It’s rare to find a child (or adult) who isn’t fascinated by gloop! Mix it up with corn flour, water and food colour.
    • Cloud dough – Super soft and moldable just like sand (but not as gritty).
      Grab some flour and add some vegetable oil and mix with your fingers to achieve a crumbly texture. Add some coco powder to make Chocolate Mud.
    • Chocolate Mud – Add some plastic pots and a few vegetables and you’ve got your very own veg patch to dig and play with! Kept in a sealed airtight box to keep it for future play.

Tips to get children involved

Let children know its okay to get messy. Set up a ‘safe space’, perhaps outside where it doesn’t matter if paint or glue is splashed around. Don’t be afraid to get messy yourself! Roll up your sleeves and re-live your childhood memories of fingerpainting or squishing mud. You might feel like it’s just mess, but you’re giving your child wonderful memories and foundation skills that will last a lifetime.

For more messy play ideas visit Messy play ideas ( or Fun and Educational Play Activities for babies- Playgroup NSW

There is no right or wrong way to engage in messy play. Let a child’s creativity and imagination take over and see what fun things they create!

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